Platform: Xbox One, Windows PC
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Release Date: March 20, 2018
Sea of Thieves is an attempt to reinvent how and why many of us play video games.
In the works at storied U.K. developer Rare for the past four years, it’s easily summed up as an online multiplayer pirate simulation. Players band together in crews of up to four friends and/or strangers, take control of a ship, and head out on the high seas looking swashbuckling adventures that include searching for treasure, fighting evil skeletons, and defending against or attacking any other human crews you might encounter. (You can opt to sail alone, but it’s both a lot harder and not nearly as much fun.)
Sounds simple enough, right? And in many ways it is. Rare has given us a blissfully straightforward interface and controls. A moderately experienced player will be able to figure out most everything they need to know to play, from wielding swords and guns to rigging a ship’s sails and reading a map, without the need for any instruction over the course of just a couple of quick initiation voyages.
And those voyages aren’t overly complex, either. They generally begin with a treasure map and end with the crew selling what they’ve found at an outpost. In the unlikely event you’re not sure what to do, chances are a more experienced member of your crew will be able to show you the ropes.
But this simplicity — alluring as it might be — may also be Sea of Thieves’ downfall, at least for some players.
Most online games set players on a course to slowly level up their characters, gaining better weapons, loot, gear, abilities, and attributes while taking on increasingly more challenging missions. This sense of progress and the feeling of competition with other players is what keeps people playing for weeks, months, and even years.
In contrast, Sea of Thieves is wholly dedicated to keeping players on equal footing. Someone who’s been playing for a day can crew up with someone who’s been playing for months, and neither will have an inherent advantage — save, of course, the latter’s experience with the game. It’s a bold move meant to keep the entire community playing together, and early indications suggest it works.
There is still progression, but it’s of a different flavour. As players complete voyages, they’ll rise in reputation, be able to buy some cool-looking clothes and items, and slowly unlock access to slightly more complex tasks. But none of this prohibits rookies from teaming up with veterans. In fact, n00bs who find themselves sharing a ship with more experienced players will actually benefit from the ability to take on more interesting voyages proposed by their senior shipmates. And assuming they can tug a trigger, swing a sword, and raise an anchor, they’ll be able to pull their weight just fine with their veteran comrades.
This horizontal levelling system is risky business. Players looking to become super powerful pirate warriors and tackle ever more challenging missions might be a little disappointed. They can take pride in their growing reputation and fancy duds, but there’s not a lot more that they can lord over other players.
Clearly, this is not the reason to play Sea of Thieves.
It turns out the reason to play is to…well, to play. To experience Rare’s beautiful simulation of pirate life, which includes wonderfully authentic sailing, counting paces from landmarks to figure out where X marks the spot, and enjoying views of the most stunning and dynamic ocean water ever created for a video game. And – this is the real crux – you need to share all of these experiences with a crew of good friends.
You’ll want to hear someone else laugh with glee through your headset as you launch yourself from a ship’s cannon onto an enemy boat and proceed to cut down its surprised crew. You’ll want to share the sense of discovery as you and your friends work out the meaning of a rhyming riddle to uncover a buried chest. You’ll want to raise tankards of grog and dance to a rusty tune being played on an old hurdy-gurdy once you’ve sold off all of your spoils.